Angaleena Presley is from where I’m from. That is to say that her hometown in Martin County, Kentucky is just on the other side of the hills from my hometown in the bordering Johnson County, Kentucky.
Of course, the latter location also contains a little place called Butcher Holler, home to a certain cabin on a hill immortalized in song by Loretta Lynn. The daughter of a coal miner herself, Presley tells of cutting classes in high school to sneak across the county line to seek inspiration from Lynn’s birthplace.
There’s something in the hills of our little corner of Eastern Kentucky, it seems, that lends itself to such inspiration. Even though Presley moved to Nashville some time ago, she never stopped being inspired by the hills and hollers of her home. When she joined the trio The Pistol Annies with Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe, she chose the moniker of “Holler Annie,” and her debut solo record American Middle Class also draws strongly from life in her hometown.
Sadly, life in Presley’s hometown, much like life in my own, isn’t quite what it was twenty or thirty years ago when we were growing up there. Rural Appalachia has never been a stranger to hard times or economic struggles, but lately escalating joblessness and hopelessness, among other things have changed things in a way that’s hard to describe unless you’re from there yourself.
The trouble is that being from there makes it possibly even harder to describe.
People from this region of Appalachia, even those who no longer live there such as myself, are exceedingly proud of where they come from. I wouldn’t describe my upbringing as hard by any standard, but that sense of overcoming hardships and struggles persists and is passed down from past generations. To come from where we came from, the thought goes, one had to be tough to survive.
That toughness bred a sense of pride that stuck in the region. To point out the issues facing that area today, especially coming from those who no longer live there such as myself, puts one at risk of seeming condescending, or as though they are taking pity on those who still live there. Pity is the opposite of pride.
That’s what makes American Middle Class such an amazing record. Presley is able to address issues like prescription drug abuse, methamphetamine addiction, the lack of quality jobs, and even the conflicting desires many people have of staying to rebuild versus leaving to start over, without ever casting a judgmental eye. She does so by painting compelling pictures in her songs… not of the problems themselves… but of the people facing them.
The characters who find themselves addicted to, and even dying from, prescription drugs in the fiery “Pain Pills” (featuring Johnson County, Kentucky native Chris Stapleton on backing vocals) aren’t career criminals or some other shadowy element. They are the football hero, the preacher’s daughter, and the literal “girl next door.” Good people dealt a harsh turn. The same could be said for the middle aged clerk in “Grocery Store,” or the mothers praying for their children in “Dry County Blues.” Life has led them down an unexpected path, yet they continue to fight to either maintain or reclaim that sense of pride that is so tied to the place they come from.
When Presley was in high school, she looked to Loretta Lynn for inspiration. This past September, Presley (along with Kacey Musgraves) presented Lynn with a Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting at the Americana Music Awards in Nashville.
At the time of that awards show, I didn’t know Presley or her music (I first heard this album on my drive home to Knoxville from Nashville). If I had, it would have made perfect sense to me why she was the one chosen to present Lynn with the honor that night. Just as Lynn helped redefine what a woman’s role could be in Country music by writing songs that honored and examined her roots while also taking on the issues of her day, Presley (along with other artists like Musgraves, Monroe, & Brandy Clark) is doing the same now.
I’m proud to come from where I come from. I’m just as proud to have an artist like Angaleena Presley writing songs and making records that reflect just what it feels like to do so.
(Author’s note: Angaleena Presley performs on WDVX’s First Friday Live on February 6th at 7:00 Eastern at the Knoxville Visitor’s Center. I will serve as the host. The show is free to attend and will also be broadcast live on WDVX and wdvx.com.)